Latest UConn player "a great kid"
That all changed on Saturday when the news broke that former Duke star Azura' Stevens was transferring to UConn. There have not been many transfers accepted by UConn coach Geno Auriemma but this is now two in the last three years with Stevens joining Natalie Butler. I don't even know if I could quantify what a big deal this is. I remember saying that wherever Stevens landed was going to change the national pecking order. Not only did UConn land Stevens but other top programs like South Carolina and Louisville (whose coaches worked with her on the U.S. U-19 team) did not. Stevens will need to sit out next season due to NCAA regulations on players who transfer from one Division I program to another one but UConn will be adding a player who I probably would have had among the five best in the country on the various preseason All-American teams I cast votes for.
As was the case with Butler's departure from Georgetown, there were some circumstances resulting in the change of schools that made the UConn coaches more receptive to a big-time transfer. In Butler's case it was a coaching upheaval following the departure of Keith Brown. This time, the player movement tally within the Duke program has been hard to believe in recent years with Stevens, who played her high school basketball in nearby Raleigh, the player whose decision to transfer was the most surprising to me since it didn't fall under the normal categories of a player being homesick or upset about playing time or her role on the team. I would say that if Auriemma were able to pick a player from an opposing team to add to the roster, other that South Carolina's A;ja Wilson I am not sure there would be a better player that Stevens considering the lack of size on the next couple of UConn teams following the graduation of Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck. Auriemma got to know Stevens a little bit when she played for the U-19 team since UConn rising sophomore Napheesa Collier and incoming freshman Crystal Dangerfield were on the U.S. team that won the FIBA U19 World Championship. What I've heard is that Auriemma was extremely impressed with Stevens as a person even though at that time I am sure he never envisioned he would ever be coaching the versatile 6-foot-6 star.
Now that I am back in Connecticut, I reached out to Stevens' former coach at Cary High School and Patrick Daly couldn't say enough good things about the newest UConn Husky.
Daly actually coached for Cary's league rival Athens Drive during Stevens' freshman and sophomore season before taking the job at Cary.
"It was a unique perspective trying to stop her and trying to get her to do her thing," Daly said.
"The first thing is her length, we assumed she wasn't quite as strong as she developed into by her senior year but obviously just trying to keep her off the boards was the No. 1 priority. I didn't want her to have putback after putback so I tried to double her and see how she responded. It was a lot more fun to coach her than to coach against her, I can tell you that.
"Before she is even a basketball player, she is just a great kid. She is your typical high school kid, when she was here. She stood out here because of her height walking down the hallway but you wouldn't have known she was as talented of an athlete as she was based on talking to her.
"She just wanted to be like everybody else. She obviously has natural, God-given ability but she works hard at the same time and in the classroom she does the same thing, she was always an A/B student and you will never find anybody who will say anything negative about her. I would think it would be very hard to find somebody who didn't like her or anything like that, she is just a great kid."
Stevens is the second major-college women's basketball player in the Stevens family as her older sister Da'Shena is a former Trinity Catholic star who was the 2009 Big East Freshman of the Year. The youngest of the three Stevens sisters is Kayla or K.J. Stevens, who plays at Athens Drive.
"A great family and a lot of fun to be around,' Daly said. "They have high values, she has a great support system. The parents do a fantastic job of raising all of their children, very supportive, whatever they could do to help out our program they were willing to do. Her dad (Damon) is a chef and he was starting a catering business so he catered all of our meals even though he didn't even have a child at our school anymore and that just goes to show you the support that she has from her parents. They have a great faith, it is very important to their family so it has been a pleasure to work with them."
Daly reached out to Stevens a couple of times since it was announced that Duke's leading scorer and rebounder during the 2015-16 season was leaving the program but it was mostly to let her know he was there if she needed to bounce any thoughts or concerns off of him.
"I've had a couple of conversations with her, I just let her know that I was one of the people in her corner if she needed any kind of support," Daly said. "We talked a little bit about what the next step was going to be, what were her options but primarily that was a family she handled all by herself and her parents."
Daly was always impressed by Stevens' competitive nature when he coached her and believes that played a huge role in her deciding to head to UConn.
"When she finally committed to play basketball at the highest level, I think she really wanted to challenge herself and become the best basketball player she can become, whatever it took, whatever coaching staff was willing to do that, that is what she wanted to do," Daly said. "That has always been a goal of hers since she committed to playing in college. I just feel like UConn's reputation and record speaks for itself, tremendous coaches and a great support system. If she can play at that level, why not?
"I think she has a ton of potential still. She is such a unique kid with her size, she is big enough to play inside but she has guard skills. She can shoot the 3, bring the ball up, she has this unique skill set and that is what makes her so special. If you play her at the guard position, now you have to box her out because she will go in there, fight for rebounds and get putbacks and she presents a lot of challenges for opponents. I think that is what makes her so unique is that she can play basically all five positions, whatever we needed her to do at the high school level she did.. I think even just sitting out next year, she is going to develop a lot. I am really excited to see her step onto the court for her last two seasons
"She is excited, she can't wait to get up there. She is going to stop by in the next couple of weeks before she headed up there for summer school. What an exciting time. Obviously they have been in that situation with the older sister before so to have two children play at that highest level, that has to be an incredible feeling for her parents as well and her younger sister."